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El Chapo: The Mexican Drug Lord’s New Role as Prison Reform Advocate

Maureen Meehan

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El Chapo

Since his extradition to the United States this past January, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has been held in one of the country’s highest-security federal prisons—the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan.

Known for two dramatic prison escapes in his home country where he had lots of assistance both inside and outside the prison walls, El Chapo is in solitary confinement in the most secure wing of the MCC: the notorious 10 South.

The wing, which has been has been called the Guantánamo of New York, is reserved for the highest risk defendants such as accused al-Queda operatives, drug lords and mafia dons like the late mob boss John Gotti, of the Gambino crime family.

And El Chapo is complaining about the conditions, which the New York Times called bleak.

Inside the half-dozen cells of 10 South, the lights are always on, it is constantly monitored by cameras and prisoners are never allowed outdoors or to have any significant human contact other than with prison guards.

In a series of court filings, Guzmán’s lawyers have complained that he is locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, except for lawyer and court visits, and has been denied all contact with his family and the media.

Guzman’s lawyers, both public defenders, say he is the most closely guarded inmate in the United States, which is hindering their ability to prepare for trial.

In addition to appealing to the Federal District Court, his attorneys have asked for help from Amnesty International.

In a letter to U.S. attorney Andrea Goldbarg, sent in late March, Amnesty wrote that it is “concerned that the conditions imposed on [Guzman] appear to be unnecessarily harsh and to breach international standards for humane treatment.”

Guzmán has not been allowed to speak to his wife or other family members, said public defense attorney Michelle Gelernt. She told the Guardian that his conditions of captivity exceed any other mainland U.S. prison, including Colorado’s hyper-secure Supermax, colloquially known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

“Even convicted prisoners held in the notorious federal Supermax in Colorado are allowed to watch television in their cells, exercise outside where they can speak with other inmates, and speak with their families. Mr Guzmán enjoys none of these benefits,” Gelernt said.

The irony here is that El Chapo, accused of killing thousands of people in Mexico’s drug wars, is becoming a poster boy for prison reform in the United States. God knows we need it.

However, federal prosecutors argue that the restrictions on Guzmán are necessary, according to the NY Times, because he retains “unparalleled connections” to the local bosses back home in the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is said to be alive and thriving.

Another reason, say prosecutors, is because El Chapo has a “proven history” of murdering his enemies even while under lock and key.

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